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Look around in history – and even in the present day – and you’ll find multiple examples of racism trying to shrink our Blackness.
Wearing a hoodie while Black. Birdwatching while Black. Riding with the fam in the car while. Heck, existing while Black can seem nearly impossible without somebody deciding not to drink their water and mind their own business.
So when I stumbled upon this nifty community guide by the Civil Rights Memorial Center that helps people strengthen their anti-racist muscles, I was intrigued. While reading it, this quote about the importance of looking beyond Black trauma caught my eye.
“It is also important to note — and state out loud to participants — that the history of Black people in America is not only one of oppression. There is Black joy, the Harlem Renaissance and the Black is Beautiful Movement, the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program, to name only a few, that speak to the rich history of Blackness in America. Black history is American history and it is rich and vibrant.”
While the guide talks about oppression and how it still shows up for Black and brown people today, my friend and colleague Alexis Wray and I are here to give you some examples of people who are already taking up space for our folks in different ways.
If you know someone who needs some inspiration to show up as their fabulous Black self, take a sec to share the encouragement by slipping this newsletter in their DMs.
– Starr & Alexis
Fixing the narrative with the “Mothers of Genecology“
Activist and artist Michelle Browder doesn’t play games when it comes down to Black history.
If you chat with her about Rosa Parks, Browder will make sure you know what Parks and her husband did before and after she refused to give up her seat on that Montgomery, Ala., bus. For those of you who can recite the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Browder also wants you to know that King also said, “We’re coming to get our check” before the Poor People’s March on Washington in 1968.
On Sept. 24 , Browder unveiled the nation’s first statue honoring the “Mothers of Gynecology.” The 15-foot monument features three enslaved Black women: Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey.
The monument’s name is a clapback to Dr. James Marion Sims, a 19th-century physician who experimented on the bodies of at least 11 enslaved women between 1845 and 1849 in Montgomery. These women couldn’t give consent, nor did they receive anesthesia for these surgeries.
Sims rose to fame as the “Father of Gynecology” for developing techniques and still being used on women to this day. But he profited off the pain of Black women who aren’t mentioned on any of the three statues that were raised in his honor.
But Browder ain’t having that. So she and her team made sure the sisterhood of Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey is not erased from history. The monument’s location is strategically located just west of the plantation where Anarcha was enslaved and a couple blocks away from the Negro Hospital where Sims held his operations.
I hit up Browder to talk about being in a city that’s known as the cradle of both the Confederacy and the Civil Rights Movement and what she has learned during her research for the statue.
What does Montgomery’s history to you?
Endurance, resiliency and strength. We change narratives. You see the photos of people being beaten and snatched from lunch counters. So I flipped the script on it to say, “Well, I don’t have to sit at your lunch counter? I can create my own.”
What drew you to the stories of Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey?
You cannot come to Montgomery, Ala. without seeing James Marion Sims and/or (president of the Confederacy) Jefferson Davis. People have to start telling the truth about Davis and Sims…a plaque calls (Sims) the “father of gynecology,” who cured the empress of France and all of these lies. So I said, “Well, if he’s the father, where’s the mother?” Who are these women he has used as experimental subjects…So I wanted to share narratives of strength, hope resiliency, but then also the brutality of Black women because we are suffering from this legacy of slavery, whether it’s fibroid tumors, the lack of healthcare, how we’re treated during our healthcare crisis, or just simply having a baby.
What gave you the idea to do a statue in honor of them?
I want to thank the Daughters of the Confederacy, number one, because they were white women in the South who erected these monuments in honor of white men who killed, raped, pillaged and displaced people simply because they thought they had the right to do it. But these women created narratives and lies via the lost cause narrative to make sure that we call the names of their ancestors for generations – for centuries.
So, Just as the daughters of the Confederacy taught their children to romanticize the Civil War – that’s why you have segregationists and Jim Crow – I’m taking that same stance and I’m going to teach children real history and share real truths with them. I’m using the same playbook the Daughters of the Confederacy used. We’re the daughters of Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey. I’ll erect my own monument to talk about the strength and the resiliency of black women and what we’ve contributed to this nation and the world.
So the statue is phase one of your plan to expose more of the hidden gems of Montgomery’s history. Another phase is to build an art and history museum that dives more into the lives of Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey. What have you learned about the women so far?
So Anarcha went on to be a nurse….She went on to be married and had several kids. I do believe there was six of them. She’s buried in Virginia, but she worked as a nurse. She would provide health care for traveling doctors and lawyers. When men traveled, they would fall ill to whatever disease there was at the time, like malaria. And Anarcha would be called in to care for them. It’s really interesting feat. Now, Lucy and Betsey, they kind of fall off the Census.
What would you say to the “Mothers of Gynecology” if you could see them?
We are sorry you didn’t have anyone to help you. But we’re grateful for your resiliency and your ability to still thrive and to show us how to do that in the midst of all that pain. I would thank them and to let them know they are not forgotten. The world will know their story.
Black Man, M.D. changes the healthcare world with joy
Last week, we replenished the spiritual reserves of our healthcare professionals who are knuckin’ and buckin’ with Ms. Rona. Another medical worker who deserves some praise is Christel Wekon-Kemeni, a first-generation American with Cameroonian roots who is now a third-year pediatric resident at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Wekon-Kemeni wants to inspire more Black people to join the medical field with his blog, Black Man, M.D.
It’s an important mission to have because here’s the thing: The number of Black men applying for medical school hasn’t budged…in more than 40 years. Only 2.9 percent of medical school enrollees were Black men during the 2019-20 school year. And that’s a 0.2 percent dip from the 1978-79 school year. Experts point to racial disparities that show up and wreak havoc classrooms, medical school costs and stereotypes against Black men for the scarcity of Black male doctors.
Black Man, M.D. dismantles a lot of these issues. Wanna be inspired by Black people in the medical field? Wekon-Kemeni has published more than 150 profiles of Black healthcare professionals on the gram and on his website. Need the cash for medical school? He’s been crowdfunding scholarship money for Black students since 2019.
A good bulk of his blog is used to describe his journey through medical school and beyond to show that Black men can’t be defined by the labels society places on them. While growing up in Virginia, he didn’t see Black men as physicians, but as entertainers like rappers, athletes, actors, etc. He didn’t see a Black doctor until he was in college. Wekon-Kemeni was inspired to join the healthcare field after his father was hospitalized with an illness while he was in high school. He said he never wanted to feel that hopeless in helping someone ever again.
Wekon-Kemeni walked me through different moments of Black Joy as a medical professional.
Playing around in pediatrics: Wekon-Kemeni originally went into medical school to be an eye surgeon. But he switched during his third year in medical school after doing rotations in pediatrics, which he soon learned was like the funhouse of healthcare. He didn’t just care for a six-year-old boy with kidney disease. He got to know the child as they played games and talked about how the kid saw his future. Every Christmas, Wekon-Kemeni and other members National Medical Association would transform into Santa and his elves to host a Christmas party for the kids with sickle cell. ‘Twas a night filled with singing, arts, crafts and laughs.
“Whenever I’m feeling kind of tired, rundown, a little burnt out, it’s interesting that these kids really fill me up,” Wekon-Kemeni said. “It’s inspiring me to keep going and keep pursuing my passions and to keep helping them become healthier so they can do what they want to do in their lives.”
“My doctor is Black”: When Wekon-Kemeni opens a patient’s door and he founds out he is helping a Black family, it’s a whole vibe up in there. The kids eyes light up. The parents look at him very proud and impressed as if they are his own family. He remembers fondly treating a shy Black girl who told her mother, “Look, mom. I finally found a brown doctor who looks like me.”
Did your heart just melt? My heart just melted!
Creating community: Recently, Wekon-Kemeni has been making it his duty to connect Black residents at UNC Chapel Hill with other Black residents who attend Duke University, which is 20 miles away from UNC. So far, they have decompressed together at a brewery and an arcade. It’s good for their mental health, but it is also good to unwind with someone with other Black doctors-in-training who get you, Wekon-Kemeni said.
“Especially with the new interns and people who are just starting residency, finding that sense of community is really important,” Wekon-Kemeni said. “We just connect together so that we don’t have to code switch for one night. We can literally just be ourselves with each other.”
Sometimes taking up space means finding a new one
Hey y’all, it’s Alexis D. Wray back to share a little more of me with you, and uplift a story from the Appalachian regions of North Carolina that embodies Black joy.
Growing up in rural, white, and conservative Appalachia, I always knew in order to meet my expectations of success, friendships, love, and community that I would have to move away from home. Ashe County, N.C., a small place in the western region of the state is where I grew up, graduated from high school with only four other Black students, and where I led a Black Lives Matter protest of more than 350 people last summer with Quentin Wellington, a community organizer in the North Carolina Appalachian region.
Black Appalachian community members like Wellington are my inspiration, they navigate places like Ashe County as Black and queer, find beauty in the region, and locate to new places in the mountains where they can form a community despite challenges and harm.
Within the past year, Wellington has since relocated to Asheville, N.C., a popular tourist destination in the Blue Ridge Mountains where they have found joy in blackness and queerness.
“Where I’m from wasn’t sustainable for my mental and physical health as a Black person and also as a queer person. So within two weeks of getting my stimulus check, I took that and relocated to somewhere that has more people like me, more Black people, and more queer people. Now I’m here [Asheville],” they said.
Sometimes taking up space means that you first have to find a new one. Moving from a place like Ashe County to Asheville allowed Wellington to find community in Black and queer spaces and lean on them.
“The Black community here has taught me how to be outspoken and take up space. There will always be racism, transphobia and homophobia — that’s what I have to accept. Moving and taking up space looks like an unapologetic vibe that I like to give myself and that comes from a place of love.”
There is obvious beauty in Appalachian regions like Asheville that many outsiders and tourists see as a beautiful oasis with nature, mountains, and The Biltmore House. But there is also the reality of how insiders and residents see it — a place for hippies, a growing LGBTQ community, and street names still named for former slave owners.
Wellington is not new to seeing the reality of racism that exists in Appalachia. In their hometown of West Jefferson, a small city (1,539 population) in Ashe County, they know the history that has often been erased about the Black narrative and even the systemic structures placed to push out Black and queer folks.
But moving to Asheville allowed for them to not only find a community within their identity but also organize around issues most affecting blackness and queerness. Wellington now volunteers and does mutual aid work with Asheville for Justice, an advocacy group promoting equitable solutions to racial injustice in western North Carolina.
“I lean on my community when I’m confused on how to move or how to think in these spaces. Most if not all of my friends are a part of the global African diaspora. So all the perspectives and advice on how to move and take up space comes from them, especially after the events that happened last summer (Black Lives Matter protest in Asheville) that were very intense and had a lot of my friends tear-gassed. They had to redefine what survival looks like, so I have a lot of love for them and I take a lot of notes from them.”
Wellington sees themselves as a space-taker-upper when they can collectively take up space with their communities.
This is why finding Black joy amid ruralness, whiteness, and anti-Blackness is monumental and what they describe as living radically
“Black people really have each others’ back here and that has shown up in some radical ways. Because of the presence of violence, we have to take care of each other and we do so by holding and taking up space for each other here.”
Stay beautiful, Southern and Black and keep spreading the Black joy, y’all! See ya’ soon!
Due to an editing error, Quentin , who uses they/them pronouns, was identified using an incorrect pronoun. We apologize for the error